The Temple of The Golden Pavilion – Yukio Mishima (translated by Ivan Morris)

As I have said again and again, the fact of not being understood was the very reason for my existence.
Yukio Mishima, novelist, playwright, actor, film director and poet. Nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature three times. Bibliography includes, one film, one libretto, eighteen plays, twenty books of essays, twenty books of short fiction and forty novels. A bit to choose from when looking at his work!!! One of theoft quoted facts about Mishima is his failed coup d’etat in 1970 where himself and four members of the Tatenokai, visited the commandant of the Ichigaya Camp (the Tokyo headquarters of the Eastern Command of Japan’s Self-Defence Forces. They barricaded the office, tied the commandant to his chair and went onto the balcony to unfurl a banner listing their demands, and Mishima addressed the soldiers gathered below, with the intention of restoring power to the emperor. When he was booed and jeered, he returned to the commandant’s office and committed seppuku (a ritual disembowelment). His assistant’s duty was to decapitate Mishima, however they failed with their initial attempts, before finally being successful. What better character could I find to delve into January in Japan?
Our novel takes the form of a first person narrator, of “weak constitution” and a stutterer, who grows up in the shadow of his father, a Buddhist priest, before finally becoming an acolyte at the famous Kinkakuji temple in Kyoto “the Golden Temple”.
Whatever words people might speak to the Golden Temple, it must continue to stand there silently, displaying its delicate structure to the eyes of the world and enduring the darkness that surrounded it.
The Golden Temple becomes the centre of our narrator’s attention, its beauty, its pull, its symbolism in an era where Japan had just “lost” the Second World War:
In Tokyo, after people had heard the Rescript, the probably went and stood in front of the Imperial Palace; here great numbers went and wept before the gates of the uninhabited Kyoto Palace. Kyoto is full of shrines and temples where people can go and cry on occasions like this. The priests must all have done rather well that day. Yet despite the great role of the Golden Temple, no one came to visit it that day.
We learn of our narrator’s troubled upbringing, there is a wonderful passage where he witnesses his mother sleeping with another man whilst his dying father lies next to him. The movement of the mosquito net giving away the action across the bed, it is not the wind but a more mechanical, rhythmic movement. The passage gives everything away, without any explicit detail being required. Of course this upbringing leads to the unhinged state of our protagonist, his stuttering and his inability to be accepted by school friends or other acolytes. We learn of him “committing evil” by trampling on a prostitute’s stomach at the request of an American soldier. As a reward he is given two cartons of cigarettes which he “donates” to the superior at the temple. Later the woman visits the temple and demands compensation for her miscarriage. Our narrator is now in a dilemma, admit or deny the crime?
…but I was now endowed with the vivid consciousness that I had in fact committed evil. This consciousness hung like some decoration on the inside of my breast.
Each and every action of our narrator leads back to the “Golden Temple”, but what does it represent? Beauty? Lust? Desire? Representative of everything non-human? Enlightenment? A symbol for all sins and desires?
Finally I slipped my hand up the girl’s skirt.
Then the Golden Temple appeared before me.
A delicate structure, gloomy and full of dignity. A structure whose gold foil had peeled off in different places, and which looked like the carcass of its former luxury. Yes, the Golden Temple appeared before me – that strange building which, when one thought it was near, became distant, that building which always floated clearly in some inscrutable point of space, intimate with the beholder, yet utterly remote. It was this structure that now came and stood between me and the life at which I was aiming. At first it was as small as a miniature painting, but in an instant it grew larger, until it completely buried the world that surrounded me and filled every nook and cranny of this world, just as in that delicate model which I had once seen the Golden Temple had been so huge that it had encompassed everything else. It filled the world like some tremendous music, and this music itself became sufficient to occupy the entire meaning of the world. The Golden Temple, which sometimes seemed to be so utterly indifferent to me and to tower into the air outside myself, had now completely engulfed me and had allowed me to be situated within its structure.
Although this work contains numerous Zen Buddhist references and the linkages to enlightenment, to the illusion of reality and other examples I will comment on later, our writer makes it quite clear that the troubled acolyte and his desire to destroy the Golden Temple are not specifically related to one religion of philosophy:
The university library was my one and only pleasure resort. I did not read books on Zen, but such translations of novels and philosophical works as happened to be on hand. I hesitate to mention the names of those writers and philosophers, I am aware of the influence they had on me and also of the fact that it was they who inspired me to the deed that I committed; yet I like to believe that the deed itself was my own original creation: in particular, I do not want this deed to be explained away as having been actuated by some established philosophy.
So what is the “deed”? In 1950 the ancient Zen temple of Kinkakuji in Kyoto was deliberately burned to the ground. A 500 year old Temple which dated back to the Shogun era was wilfully destroyed by an “unbalanced” student of Zen Buddhism. This novel is his imagined story.
As our story progresses our narrator becomes more and more “unbalanced”
Why does the Golden Temple disregard this action of mine? Why does it not blame me or interfere with me when I embody myself like this into music? Never once has the temple disregarded me when I have tried to embody myself in the happiness and pleasures of life. On every such occasion it has been the fashion of the temple to block my effort instantly and to force me to return to myself. Why will the Golden Temple only permit intoxication and oblivion in the case of music?
There are long passages of philosophy and defining of beauty or knowledge once our narrator meets a fellow university student who suffers from severely clubbed feet. They become friends, and it is pointed out that it is not because they both suffer disabilities, and this section of the novel can be a little hard to follow as they debate the meaning of beauty, the meaning of existence, their own desires and Buddhist teachings. This does not distract from the slow build towards the destruction of the Temple (in my edition this is given away on the front cover by an artist’s drawing of the Temple in flames!!).
If I were to set fire to the Golden Temple, which had been designated as a National Treasure in 1897, I should be committing an act of pure destruction, of irreparable ruin, an act which would truly decrease the volume of beauty that human beings had created in this world.
This is the destruction of the “perfect form”. The references to Buddhism do abound, the fact that beauty does not really exist, we have pebbles being dropped into ponds, “nothingness was the very structure of this beauty”, “up this is point it has been I, from here on it is not I” and the shedding of ego. However as I said it would be easy to draw Zen Buddhist conclusions about the motivations of our narrator and his ultimate destruction of the Golden Temple.

I believe it is not the point of this novel, it is a character study inside the unhinged mind of an “unbalanced” individual. His constant self-loathing, his insecurities and his motivations slowly unravel before our eyes. A masterful work which mixes symbolism and straightforward plot, tinged with philosophy and action this is a work worth visiting.

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4 thoughts on “The Temple of The Golden Pavilion – Yukio Mishima (translated by Ivan Morris)

  1. This is one of my favourite novels of Japanese literature – I read it when I was in my late teens and was completely blown away by it. The unreliable, unhinged narrator is so well done. My Japanese teacher thought Mishima's style was too ornate, but here it fits the style of the Golden Pavillion perfectly.


  2. Pingback: Yukio Mishima’s “The Sea of Fertility” tetralogy, initial thoughts | Messenger's Booker (and more)

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